How to Motivate Your Child: 5 Positive Strategies

Is your child an unmotivated couch potato? Use these five strategies to give them a gentle nudge in the right direction.

Cheryl Butler
7-minute read
Episode #446
The Quick And Dirty

Some kids are natural go-getters, but others need some gentle nudging and encouragement. Here are five tips to help your child get motivated and stay inspired.

  1. Expect your child to contribute toward big-ticket items on their wish lists
  2. Tap into their interests
  3. Be the example
  4. Set expectations
  5. Validate their efforts

I grew up the oldest of five siblings and was used to being a “take charge” kind of kid, even in young adolescence. So maybe it was my birth order that paved my ambitious drive to do extra chores around the house and score paying jobs at the age of 12. Whatever the case, I was a “mover and a shaker” and definitely not a couch potato.

My younger brothers and sister followed suit when it came to venturing into the workforce and earning a paycheck. All five of us had part-time jobs by the age of 15, and if we weren’t working at a pizza place or babysitting, we asked our parents what we could do around the house to earn a few bucks and buy things we knew they weren’t going to provide just because we wanted them. (Imagine that?)

Of course, my experience growing up isn't the same as the one kids face today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between April and July 2020 the number of employed youth 16 to 24 years old increased by a whopping 4.4 million to 17.5 million. So, going out and getting a summer job to keep busy and earn an income isn't an easy option for many young people. For those too young to join the workforce, there are plenty of distractions to compete for their attention, from chat apps to video games to TikTok.

So, how do we parents keep our kids motivated and engaged instead of hunkered over an electronic device? Here are five tips to try!

Tip #1: Expect your child to contribute when it comes to pricey items

Growing up, I remember how frustrated my siblings and I would feel when we asked my parents for a pair of trendy sneakers or money for something costly like a concert ticket or a new piece of electronic equipment. (Cell phones were nonexistent back then!) The request seemed simple enough, but my parents had other ideas. Instead, the answer was always "What can you do to help contribute to the cost of this?"

Dr. Ruth Peters, a psychology contributor to NBC's TODAY show and author of Overcoming Underachieving, agrees with my parent's philosophy. She says:

Daily in my practice, I see parents who have made the mistake of not taking the time and attention to teaching their children to be workers and achievers. These kids have learned to settle for less rather than to face and challenge adversity, to become whiners rather than creative problem solvers, and to blame others for perceived slights and lack of success.

Dr. Ruth Peters, "7 Strategies to Build a Strong Work Ethic in Your Kids"

When my parents insisted we earn the things we just expected them to pay for, it would infuriate each of us. Looking back, however, we now realize the value of earning these things. Doing some extra chores around the house or using a portion of our savings served two purposes. It was a motivator to earn the high-ticket item, and we appreciated the new pair of shoes or the good time we enjoyed at the concert even more because we helped contribute. By not making it too easy for us, we all learned to put forth the extra effort for those significant wants. 

Tip #2: Tap into their interests

Parenting eight kids has been full of surprises, but the biggest for me was realizing how unique each of their personalities was. As someone born a people pleaser, and an over-zealous goal-setter, it was baffling that any of my offspring would not share these traits.

I learned quickly that not even half of my cherubs worried what other people thought (mostly a great thing!) and the desire to set and achieve lofty goals wasn't as important as playtime. Not only did they have varied interests, but they also had different motivators. 

Design creative incentives for your kids by finding what interests them and building on that to inspire learning and creativity.

Three of my children had significant learning delays, and going to school for them was a chore because of their struggles. Their difficulty processing information was my first introduction to thinking outside the box to get and keep them motivated with their studies. Thankfully, our school system was supportive and designed creative incentives for my kids. They always began with finding something that interested them, and then they built on that to inspire their learning and curiosity. 

For instance, my daughter loved to draw. She spent most of her free time creating her own coloring books with the most enchanting characters and scenery. One of her teachers saw how much she enjoyed art and worked it into many of her lesson plans because of her extreme passion for art. Drawing was a natural motivator for her, so she could usually stay enthused with school work.

I love the advice that Lee Hausner, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist shares in this YouTube video, How To Motivate Your Child. She gets right to the point by saying:

You cannot create motivation in somebody else. Motivation is internal, so if you want to motivate an individual, you want to create an environment where they can be successful and feel good about what they are doing.

I believe that's why my daughter eventually learned to love school so much. Her teachers fostered her love of drawing and artwork and incorporated it into her lesson plans. She graduated as a solid student and is now earning her master's in graphic design.

Tip #3: Be the example

There is an old expression that fits the bill when it comes to setting an example for how we live our lives in front of our children: "Monkey see, monkey do." In other words, someone will often imitate another person's actions, good or bad, simply by having observed them repeatedly.

If you're the sort of person who puts off household chores and prefers to lounge on the comfy sofa in the middle of the day watching TV, then that's the example you're serving up for your family. You can't be unmotivated yourself and expect your child to pick up the slack. She's going to want to do what you do, except she's more likely to lounge in her room with her smartphone.

On the other hand, if you relish high standards for an orderly household where completing chores is part of the daily routine, your child will find it easier to follow suit with her responsibilities. Finishing homework promptly and making time to exercise and eat healthily will be the norm because you are setting the example for your kids to live an inspired lifestyle, not a sluggish one.

We all go through periods when we feel unmotivated ... and that's OK! It's been a tough year. If you want to get things back on track, try being honest with your kids about your struggles. You might even ask them for some ideas to help you get motivated, or invite them to participate in something you've been putting off so that it becomes a team effort. They'll feel involved, and you'll have an instant cheerleader.

Tip #4: Set expectations

Chores and housekeeping tasks usually aren't at the top of anyone's enjoyment list, but they're a part of life. In my recent episode, Conquer Your Messy Home with These 8 Easy Habits, I shared smart tips for staying on top of your household chores so that it doesn't weigh you down.

I love a great cleaning hack, but what I love even more is getting the entire family involved with our family home's upkeep. Whether you have pre-school-aged children or teens, there are plenty of age-appropriate chores kids can do. Sit down with your family and explain—in a positive, upbeat way—that you need everyone on board.

Remember: nagging is not a motivator.

Be very specific when explaining job duties. Don't assume your four-year-old knows how to put away his toys in their proper place if he's never done it before. Invest the time and positive energy in teaching him about where things belong so he'll not only learn to do it right and by himself, but he'll ultimately learn about the benefits of organization in other aspects of life.

The Center for Parenting Education cites several reasons why chores benefit a child, both now and in their future, in the article Benefits of Chores.

Research indicates that those children who do have a set of chores have higher self-esteem, are more responsible, and are better able to deal with frustration and delay gratification, all of which contribute to greater success in school.

If you have teens who give you a hard time helping around the house, don't give up! Set some time aside to share why they must start helping with laundry or loading the dishwasher properly. If you "show and tell" instead of nagging about how sick and tired you are of doing everything by yourself, you'll have a much better chance of getting your teen on board. Remember: nagging is not a motivator. 

I offer my kids incentives such as gas money or gift cards when they help willingly and without constant reminders. Don't forget to praise your kids for at least trying. Kids want to please, so be genuinely appreciative when you see your child doing one of his chores. And if he isn't doing it correctly, use it as a "teaching moment" so he'll learn constructively, not through criticism. And this brings me to the final tip—validation.

Tip #5: Validate their efforts

In tip #2, I mentioned Dr. Hausner's expert advice that motivation comes from within. She also shares that acknowledging your child's attempt to perform an uncomfortable task is crucial for stoking that driving force. 

During this past year, parents dealt with unknown territory due to the pandemic. Motivating kids to remain interested and engaged in their studies in a virtual classroom was tedious and exhausting, particularly when it comes to students who thrive in a classroom setting. The "new normal" was taxing on nearly all levels, so it was no surprise to teachers and administrators that expectations needed to be different.

The Cleveland Clinic shared advice on how parents could keep their kids motivated during distance learning, and child psychologist Emily Mudd had this to say:

One of the best ways for parents to build self-confidence and self-efficacy in their children is to focus more on effort than outcomes. Now more than ever, it's important for parents to provide space for children's efforts.

Emily Mudd, Ph.D., "How Can I Keep My Kids Motivated and On-Task While They’re Distance Learning?"

If your student finds it challenging to stay on task due to remote learning or following the popular hybrid model, don't exasperate the situation with well-intended constructive criticism. Instead, comment positively on how you admire how hard she's working on completing projects and continue to encourage all she's doing behind the scenes to get good grades.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.